Issue 22.2, May 2007

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Essay Excerpt

Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia

by Paul Manning

In November 2001, Georgian students held large meetings protesting a raid by government forces on the offices of a popular television channel, Rustavi 2, which ended in defeat for the government as the channel broadcast the raid live over the air.1 Two movements emerged from these protests: the “National Movement” of the politician Mikheil Saakashvili (now president of Georgia), and the student movement later to be called Kmara! (Enough!).2 In hindsight, it is clear that both movements played key roles in the later Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia’s first “velvet revolution,” so-called to link it proximally to the Serbian revolution of 2000 and distally to earlier East European revolutions—particularly the Czechoslovakian revolution of 1989—that marked the peaceful transition from socialism to post-socialism. With time, the Georgian revolution has come to be seen as the first in a series of brightly hued “color” revolutions—orange in Ukraine in 2004; pink, lemon, or tulip in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 (Pelkmans 2005)—wending their inevitable way through the grey, benighted parts of the world, dictatorships falling like so many dominoes. Such revolutionary color coding is not restricted to these post-socialist states. For a time, virtually every political gesture vaguely associated with democracy in the Middle East was also rebranded as a kind of color (or flower) revolution. There was a “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon;3 even the Iraqi elections were rebranded as the “Purple Revolution” (after the purple dye used to mark the fingers of voters). Predicting the colors or flowers of future revolutions became a cottage industry.

In the Benetton-like enthusiasm to draw together and unite all these very different political gestures as different shades of a single phenomenon—“color revolutions”—explanation in terms of local causation could be casually discarded in favor of a global narrative, an easily memorable sound bite–sized color coding, a revolutionary brand, so that each subsequent revolution appears like some franchise with a new color (Orange, Lemon, or Purple) or plant (Cedar or Tulip) of the first one. Making this wave of revolutions seem more impressive and inevitable, political events known locally under names without colors (e.g., Lebanon’s “independence uprising”) were tendentiously repackaged and rebranded with a plant or color name for the export market. In fact, the very term Rose Revolution seems to have first been used in a live CNN broadcast, after supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili entered the parliament building carrying roses. Until then, if there was a locally used name, the standard East European term for any bloodless revolution, “velvet revolution” (xaverdovani revolucia) was used, although the term Rose Revolution swiftly caught on in Georgia, as elsewhere.4

But surely this duality of naming, “velvet revolution” or “Rose Revolution,” should not remain external to our interpretation, standing opposed as authentic local discourse to inauthentic global discourse, for example. Rather, I argue that this duality points to important interpretive tensions internal to the reception of the Georgian revolution as well. Initially, of course, the existence of two names for the revolution points to two different publics for the revolution, the domestic “velvet revolution” and the export brand “Rose Revolution.” But it is surely important that the glossy export brand almost instantly trumped the domestic one both at home and abroad. Partly this is because the two terms situate the Georgian revolution within very different visions of historical significance, one in which it is unique and the first of its kind, the other in which it is neither. The term Rose Revolution brands the Georgian revolution as being unique (this “branding” being part of the “bourgeois repackaging” of the revolution I discuss below), but at the same time creates a forward-looking intertextual series of successive color revolutions. By contrast, the term velvet revolution creates an intertextual series that links the events of 2003 to those of 2001 and separates both of these from other bloody revolutions in Georgia. Repackaged as the “Rose Revolution,” the revolution of 2003 comes to have the honor of first place in the intertexual series of “color revolutions,” rather than as a late addition to another intertextual series of postsocialist “velvet revolutions.” At the same time, this rebranding of revolution itself in glossy color packages speaks to a broader change in revolutionary rhetoric from earlier revolutions, because this color revolution was indeed more colorful than all those that preceded it. (171-172)

Manning, Paul. "Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia ." Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 2 (2007): 171-213